Look to the Heavens: Interstellar and the Relativity of Our Perspective
It could be argued that Interstellar is a product of how far humanity has come. In his ninth feature film, Christopher Nolan stretches technology to a near breaking point, producing a visceral absorption of sight and awe-producing sound (and silence). Narratively speaking, Interstellar also presents human technology at its highest heights, it’s outermost point of human evolution. Man can go farther than they have ever gone before, reaching the ends of the galaxy, and more. Just like technological advancement isn’t what keeps its characters scratching and crawling for life, Interstellar is a humanistic film grasping for something more. It pushes us to look to the stars. And when we do, we’ll find something bigger than ourselves.
Interstellar begins with a dismal picture of earth. Dust creeps everywhere, education is limited, and it won’t be long before the ecosystem completely disintegrates into nothing. Food is scarce and most of the population has become farmers to keep up with rising demands.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is one such reluctant gardener. A former engineer and pilot, Cooper has built a stable life by growing corn in the fields around his old farmhouse. Yet, his heart has always been in the heavens. Cooper sees humanity as pioneers, not caretakers. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt,” he laments. Man’s answer isn’t more agriculture, it’s new life in the cosmos.
Soon, Cooper gets a chance to put his technical skills to use when he’s recruited to pilot a space mission that may mean the survival of the entire human race. In an emotional scene, Cooper says goodbye to his two children, not knowing if or when he will see them again. Before he leaves, Cooper makes a promise to his daughter Murph. “I’m coming back.” Murph views her dad’s absence as abandonment. Cooper sees it as a way to save both her life and the lives of everyone else on earth.
For all the talk about wormholes, gravitational anomalies, and mathematical equations–there’s certainly much of this here—the heart of Interstellar lies in the delicate, powerful relationship between Cooper and Murph. As much as Cooper is committed to humanity’s survival, it’s the powerful bond between father and daughter that pushes him off into the heavens. A bond that sees him pairing up with a small crew—which includes Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and a quirky robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin)—to traverse both the far reaches of space and humanity’s oldest, deepest questions.
I can’t help but applaud Christopher Nolan’s technical and narrative aspirations here. Every time he steps up to the plate, he swings as hard as he possibly can—even if the results aren’t always a home run. Interstellar is a prime example of this wildly entertaining approach. For all of its ambition and scale though, some of the same problems that weigh down Nolan’s other films are present in Interstellar too.
The connective tissue between plot points is wormhole-like, to use imagery from the story. They might get us quickly from point A to point B, but they also come off moderately simplistic and almost too convenient. Interstellar is also exposition heavy, but still confusing at times. It dabbles in mystery, yet feels the need to over-explain. Even with a great cast (that includes Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, and Casey Affleck), the duel storyline structure is forced, never truly feeling authentic. I’m sure you’ll also hear a slew of plot hole dissections (which may or may not be valid) in the upcoming weeks.
For all its falters though, Interstellar still ranks as one of the most exciting base hits I’ve seen in a while. With a film this emotionally involved and visually glorious, I couldn’t help but forgive Nolan’s stumbles. I travelled to the stars with Cooper. The nearly spiritual score from Hans Zimmer whisked me to the heavens. I was pressed to think deeply about life’s big questions, even if the film didn’t always present a consistent foundation for these inquiries.
At the heart of Nolan’s film is a tension between facts, figures, and hard science on one hand, and emotion, love, and looming mortality on the other. Cooper’s character seems at first to slide toward the former. He teaches his daughter Murp to only judge an event through the lens of observational science. His decision-making process is calculated. Logic is supreme.
Then there’s the side to Cooper that lends itself in the other direction. The side that is willing to risk the entire human race to see his family again. He butts heads with Brand when she expresses her struggle between logic and love. “Maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory,” she cries. Cooper scolds her, but he is guilty just the same.
Interestingly enough, Interstellar fails to explicitly mention God or religion, but that’s not to say it isn’t intertwined with the divine. Much like time is relative in the film—one hour on an unknown planet might mean seven years on earth—Interstellar seems to convey that our perception of reality also has its limitations. There is more than meets the eye. There are things happening that we can’t see; actions occurring beyond our understanding of science.
Interstellar provides a humanistic answer to these questions—man is the caretaker of his own destiny. Yet, this sentiment doesn’t always add up. Affections like love seem other worldly at times, transcending the characters’ need to survive and proving to be almost counter-evolutionary. Our perspective may be limited, but these emotions always seem to be gnawing at our souls. Or, as Brand says, “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.”
In the film’s climax—which I won’t spoil for you—Nolan attempts to weave all of these ideas together, though the product is somewhat unsatisfying. The end is and isn’t ambiguous. The film tries to find its answer in human progress. Yet, love is, from the very beginning, the key to the story. The relationship between Cooper and Murph is the gel that binds the universe together. It is what pushes humanity to look for a new creation. Nolan might not have set out to examine the spiritual, but by focusing on human evolution, he glimpses what transcends the physical. For this, Interstellar is a special, though flawed, film that I believe yearns for something greater than this fallen world.
As I drove home after watching the movie, I pondered my place in the cosmos. I thought about the pieces of the universe that I don’t quite understand. The shimmers of light that science cannot fathom. I thought about what goes on behind the scenes and how our relationships with others, though illogical at times, can be a reflection of something we can’t see. Nolan may be taking us to the heavens in a glorious, luminous way, but he’s also, maybe unknowingly, probing us to look into the wonders of the universe that find their reflection in a greater Power.
Very nice review. I agree with you that Nolan is reaching for he knows not what. The love between Coop and his daughter was palpable. Yes, it was handled in a somewhat clumsy way by the end with the assertion that “love is quantifiable” (whatever that means), but the truth is still there.
Thank you. For all of Nolan’s humanism, he seems like he highlights the spiritual often.
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